By Cara Crisler
. . . starts with a check. If you’re anything like me, you experience ongoing challenges in staying connected with your partner. This was particularly the case when our children were under the age of five, and I notice it happening when stress enters one or both of our lives. More recently, I’ve been focusing a lot of effort on staying connected with my partner and seeing the benefits. I share here some tips you can try.
The challenge of staying connected (amidst a myriad of challenges).
Over the course of my partnership (25 years), and now that I help couples build connecting communication skills, I know how difficult it can be to accomplish one of the things we most want – ongoing connection. This can be tough enough in any relationship, so to add cultural differences (I’m American, he’s Dutch) AND living in a foreign country AND busy jobs AND the web of relationships that include our two children . . . leads me to this core question: How do we stay connected amidst all of our daily challenges?
To help answer this question, I share a specific experience of ours—visiting my family for an extended time— and how we approached it.
Start with curiosity
Last summer, before leaving for our annual trip to the U.S. to spend about two weeks at my childhood home with my parents, I attempted to have an honest conversation with my husband. I started by asking open questions and was determined to listen to him with my full presence:
- How do you feel about staying a full week at my parents’ home?
- What works for you and doesn’t work for you while we’re there?
- What do you wish we could do differently?
- Do you have any ideas about how we can stay connected while there?
I was mostly surprised by his answers, which were far more positive than I expected. After all these years, he’s come to understand my family and our dynamics. He gives a lot of space for us to “just be us” and doesn’t expect anyone to change or behave differently for his benefit.
This was all great for me to hear. And yet, it was my turn to express how things were for me. This was the scariest part. I shared the following observation:
I always feel torn when I’m there, struggling to know how to balance my roles as daughter, partner, mother (and sometimes also sister, niece, childhood friend). I mostly get exhausted trying to maintain any form of balance.
Then I made a suggestion:
I often wonder if it wouldn’t be better for you to not be there at all.
Oof, this was potentially really painful for him, so I added:
It’s not that you do anything wrong, I just worry that it might be harmful for our relationship, since I can’t really give you the attention I know you need. I see that you’re not very engaged a lot of the time, and I know this must be really hard on you.
I quickly learned that this last part of my expression was pure interpretation, based on many assumptions I’d been making for over two decades. I only THOUGHT that he was unhappy there, that I didn’t give him enough attention, that he needed for me to help him feel comfortable. His response surprised me:
I never said I needed a lot of attention or your help. In fact, I’m totally fine giving you space to be with your family. I like to see you be happy with them. I’m o.k. not being in the middle of all that goes on – I know that you need that time to just be daughter/sister/niece. I can be perfectly happy in observation mode. Please don’t try to HELP me, if I don’t ask for it!
Whew! What a relief it was to hear this! All these years, I’ve been working so hard to “take care of him!” Stretching myself beyond my limits, only because I believed the thought that I had this responsibility. In the early years, there was more truth to it. But I hadn’t realized that my husband had adapted, moved on, learned to fully take care of himself. I just hadn’t changed my thinking, which resulted in something unmanageable for me. Yet it took over 10 years to even have this conversation!?
Check your “stories” with your partner
I’ve concluded that one of the most connecting things I can do in my relationship (regardless of the context) is to be in the habit of recognizing and then vulnerably sharing the thoughts, assumptions, interpretations and convictions I have running in my head and are guiding much of my behaviour. These “stories” can be far from the truth, and the only way to get closer to it is to share them and CHECK what is actually going on! The more I do this, the more I realize that my stories are something like 90% of the time NOT in line with reality! We save so much energy, frustration, and time by checking our stories with each other, and the doors to connection stay much more open.
If you liked this, you might be interested in reading a related post Cara wrote about staying in connection during the end-of-year holiday season: http://crislercoaching.com/staying-connected-with-my-partner/
She also shares the letter she wishes she had sent to her husband 20 years ago, here: http://crislercoaching.com/a-relationship-request/